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Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
THE MATCHUP: Stephen Curry vs. Jerry West
Stephen Curry was productive from the moment he set foot on an NBA floor, averaging an 18-5-6 on 46/44/89 shooting splits as a rookie, which is unfortunate for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who drafted point guards Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn with back-to-back picks before the Golden State Warriors selected Curry seventh in 2009. But it was not until 2012-13, after consecutive seasons ended in ankle surgeries, that Curry blossomed into the orbit-altering threat he was before breaking his hand in October.
From 2012 to the present, Curry has averaged 25.6 points (63.3 true shooting percentage!), 6.9 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.9 combined blocks and steals in 34.5 minutes per game. His string of six straight All-NBA selections will be snapped this year because of the hand injury. Curry won back-to-back MVPs in 2015 and 2016, including the first unanimous selection, and finished top six in voting three more times.
The Warriors have made the playoffs each season of his prime, except for this injury-plagued one. They played in five straight Finals, winning three championships and losing a legendary 2016 series to LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in Golden State’s 73-win season. From 2012-19, Curry averaged 26.5 points (60.9 TS%), 6.3 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 steals/blocks in 37.8 minutes over 112 playoff games.
Curry won his first title playing alongside perennial All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in a rotation that also included former All-Stars Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and David Lee. He won back-to-back rings after the Warriors added fellow MVP Kevin Durant and before losing to Kawhi Leonard’s Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Finals once Durant and Thompson succumbed to season-ending surgeries.
West logged similar averages as a rookie after the Los Angeles Lakers drafted him second overall behind Oscar Robertson, but his scoring nearly doubled in his second season. He remained a productive star for a contender until 1972-73, his penultimate campaign, before a groin injury and a contract dispute in his age35 season ended his career a year before he would have liked. West never missed an All-Star Game.
From 1961-73, West averaged 28.2 points (55.7 true shooting percentage), 6.9 assists and 5.6 rebounds in 39.9 minutes per game. The NBA did not record steals and blocks until his final season, when he averaged 3.3 in 31.2 minutes over 31 games before succumbing to injury. He made an All-Defensive team in each of his previous five seasons, the first handful of years the league began announcing them. West made an All-NBA team in each of his 12 prime seasons. He never won regular-season MVP honors, but he finished top six on nine occasions, including four runner-up finishes between 1966 and 1972.
The Lakers never missed the playoffs with West on the roster, making nine Finals in his 12-year prime and winning just once in 1972. He is the only player ever to earn Finals MVP honors for the losing team, winning the award in 1969, when he averaged a 38-5-7 on 49 percent shooting in a seven-game loss to Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics (who accounted for six of West’s Finals losses). West averaged 29.8 points (54.0 TS%), 6.5 assists and 5.4 rebounds in 41.8 minutes over 140 playoff games in his prime.
West’s Lakers career coincided with Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich in addition to five-time All-Star Rudy LaRusso and several other contemporary and former All-Stars.
Obviously, West would have liked to match Curry’s three rings in his nine trips to the Finals, but statistically speaking he produced comparable numbers (especially considering how much Curry’s scoring efficiency benefits from the 3-point line) while also rating as an elite defender. And he did it at a high level for nearly twice as long. Curry may well match him in the end, but West gets the nod for now.
There is no doubt Curry peaked during the 2015-16 season, when he defended his first MVP honor to become the NBA’s only unanimous selection and led the Warriors to a record-setting 73 wins, including 24 in a row to start the season. Golden State failed to defend its title that season, letting a 3-1 Finals lead evaporate as Curry battled knee problems, Green earned a costly Game 5 suspension and Harrison Barnes could not hit the broad side of an actual barn. Otherwise, there is little shame in losing to James.
During that regular season, Curry averaged 30.1 points (66.9 TS%), 6.7 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 steals/blocks in 34.2 minutes per game. He led the league in scoring, steals and free-throw percentage. Curry’s 402 three-pointers in 2015-16 obliterated the previous record of 286 he set a year prior.
Curry averaged a 26-5-5 on 44/40/92 splits in the playoffs despite missing all or parts of the first eight games due to a knee injury. In the seven-game loss to the Cavs, Curry averaged 22.6 points (58.0 TS%), 4.9 boards and 3.7 assists in 35.1 minutes. He scored 17 points on 19 shots in the 93-89 loss in Game 7.
Pick any of West’s four runner-up MVP finishes as his apex — or any season from 1964-72 for that matter — but the 1969-70 campaign is probably his most complete, even if that too ended in defeat.
West averaged a league-best 31.2 points (57.2 TS%) to go along with 7.5 assists and 4.6 rebounds in 42 minutes per game that season. He finished a close second in the MVP voting, receiving 51 first-place votes to New York Knicks big man Willis Reed’s 61. West also made First Team All-Defense in 1970.
In the playoffs, West averaged a 31-4-8 on 46.9 percent shooting from the field (80.2 percent from the line). In a seven-game Finals set opposite the Knicks, West averaged 31.3 points (54.9 TS%), 7.7 assists and 3.4 rebounds in 47.9 minutes per game. He scored 28 points on 19 shots in a 113-99 Game 7 loss.
Given West’s playoff performance and Curry’s injury in these two particular seasons, this looks a lot closer than if we merely looked at their true peak performance. It is hard to describe how revolutionary Curry’s 2015-16 season was. He shot 45.4 percent from 3-point range on the year, better than West did from the field in three of his 14 All-Star seasons and within a percentage point of two more. Plus ...
• Curry’s line per 36 minutes in 2015-16: 31.7 points, 7.0 assists, 5.7 rebounds.
• West’s best line per 36 minutes (1965-66): 27.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists.
• Curry’s advanced stats in 2015-16: 31.5 player efficiency rating, 17.9 win shares (.318 per 48 minutes).
• West’s best advanced stat line (1964-65): 25.0 player efficiency rating, 14.8 win shares (.261 per 48).
The Warriors were so dominant when Curry was cooking that they rarely needed him in fourth quarters. He torched the league. Among guards, Michael Jordan is the only other player with a PER above 31.
West made one of the most iconic buzzer beaters in NBA history, burying a 60-footer in the 1970 Finals to send Game 3 against the Knicks into overtime. But his Lakers lost the game. His last-second steal and game-tying layup in an overtime Game 3 win over the Celtics in the 1962 Finals is less remembered.
He never missed a Finals game in a career that saw him hobbled in five of his nine championship series. In those nine Finals, West averaged 30.5 points (53.3 TS%), 5.6 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game.
West played in nine advance-or-go-home games in his career, including four Finals Game 7s. He averaged 30.4 points (51.9 TS%), 7.6 rebounds and 6.2 assists in those nine games. He was remarkable in each of the four Finals Game 7s but never more so than in 1969, when he registered a 42-13-12 triple-double on 29 shots — good for Finals MVP but two points shy of victory in the 108-106 loss to Boston.
Curry does not have a signature Finals moment, unless you consider his errant game-tying attempt opposite Cavaliers forward Kevin Love in the final minute of Game 7 in the 2016 Finals. He has plenty of clutch regular-season shots to his name, most notably the 40-footer to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in February 2016, but his most notable clutch playoff shot was probably his game-tying corner triples to send Game 3 of Golden State’s 2015 first-round series against the New Orleans Pelicans into overtime.
On this alone, West probably gets the edge, but let’s dive deeper into the numbers.
Curry has also never missed a Finals game in his five trips, averaging 26.5 points (58.9 TS%), 6.2 assists and 5.7 rebounds. He has notoriously never won a Finals MVP, but he probably should have won in 2015, when he averaged a 26-5-6 on 44/39/89 shooting splits and the award went to Andre Iguodala, and he posted MVP-worthy numbers in 2017 (27-8-9 on 44/39/90 splits) and 2018 (28-6-7 on 40/42/100 splits).
He has only played in four advance-or-go-home games, and while Game 7 of the 2016 Finals is a stain on his record, he dropped a 36-5-8 in a 2016 Western Conference finals win over Oklahoma City and a 27-9-10 in a 2018 conference finals victory against the Houston Rockets. In those four must-win games, he averaged 28.3 points (62.2 TS%), 7.3 assists and six rebounds, far better than the narrative suggests.
Still, West almost never failed to show up for a Finals game — and always showed up in the must-win ones. And he has those signature clutch moments to show for it. I mean, the guy is called Mr. Clutch.
• Curry: Three-time NBA champion; two-time Most Valuable Player; six-time All-NBA selection (3x First Team, 2x Second team); six-time All-Star; 2016 scoring champion; 2016 steals leader; 50-40-90 club member; 2015 3-point contest champion; two-time FIBA World Cup gold medalist
• West: 1972 NBA champion; 1969 Finals MVP; 12-time All-NBA selection (10x First Team, 2x Second Team); five-time All-Defensive selection (4x First Team); 14-time All-Star (1972 All-Star Game MVP); 1970 scoring champion; 1972 assists leader; 1960 Olympic gold medalist
This is a difficult one. On the one hand, West has a ring, a Finals MVP, twice as many All-NBA selections and a handful of All-Defensive nods. Remarkable accomplishments, but all those runner-up finishes also left his trophy case less stocked than it might have been. Curry has the two additional championships and two MVPs. That is a résumé only Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan and LeBron James can also claim, and that is company you want to keep.
For the culture
Curry is the greatest shooter to ever live. That is one hell of a legacy, and he has plenty left in him. He is also the face of a dynasty, a superstar who ceded his alpha-dog status for the pursuit of greater team success, and his off-court persona is equally admirable. Curry transformed the Warriors into a global brand, and his No. 30 jersey is consistently among the league’s highest-selling. Kids the world see an underdog with a slight build and sweet shooting stroke that all seems attainable, even if it is not.
The son of a 1990s NBA dad and brother of another smooth shooter, Curry has carved out a wholesome brand that includes appearances on his wife’s cooking show, press conference antics with his daughter and a network reality television show production with a miniature golf theme that is titled “Holey Moley.”
Curry also serves as the face of Under Armour’s basketball sneaker line to a narrower audience.
West is another NBA lifer in a grander sense. Upon retirement from his Hall of Fame playing career, he remained with the Lakers as a coach for three years and a scout for three more before being named the team’s general manager in 1982. He is among those credited with building the 1980s dynasty that won five titles and was the architect of the early 2000s Lakers that won three straight rings, trading for the draft rights to Kobe Bryant, signing Shaquille O’Neal as a free agent and hiring Phil Jackson as coach.
West left the Lakers in 2002 for the Memphis Grizzlies, with whom he won a second Executive of the Year award, and later joined the executive board of the Warriors. In Golden State, he famously urged the team to retain Klay Thompson rather than trade for Love and played an important role in the recruitment of Durant. That led to his seventh and eighth titles as a front-office member before he returned to Los Angeles, joined the Clippers’ board and helped transform them into a title contender in two short years.
Did we mention West is the actual logo of the NBA? His silhouette as a player serves as a globally recognized symbol of basketball, and he is also the greatest executive in league history. It will be awfully hard for Curry to top West in terms of cultural impact on a sport, but it sure will be fun to watch him try.
THE DAGGER: Jerry West has had the better career.
Previously on “Whose NBA career is better?”:
• Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James
• Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell
• Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
• Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James
• Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan
• Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
• Stephen Curry vs. Jerry West
• Charles Barkley vs. Karl Malone
• Kevin Garnett vs. Moses Malone
• Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson
• Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki
• Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas
• Ray Allen vs. Reggie Miller
• Kevin McHale vs. James Worthy
• Gary Payton vs. John Stockton
• Walt Frazier vs. Scottie Pippen
• Jason Kidd vs. Steve Nash
• Grant Hill vs. Tracy McGrady
• Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter
• Clyde Drexler vs. Dominique Wilkins
• Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili
• Dwight Howard vs. Rajon Rondo
• Horace Grant vs. Draymond Green
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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